Time to Celebrate the Return of the Whales and the Movement to Protect Them

Wednesday, 20 May, 2020

In the coming months, I will join the millions of Australians around this great country of ours, as we stand upon our vast coastline looking out, and welcoming the whales as they make their mass migration from their summer Antarctic feeding grounds to their winter nursing and resting grounds.

- Commentary by Sea Shepherd Australia's Managing Director Jeff Hansen
Jeff Hansen at the Head of the Bight, SA. The Great Australian Bight is a refuge for several species of whales.

A long time ago, around 4.5 million years ago, giant blue, bowhead and fin whales were popping up in our oceans across the world. Due to several environmental factors, resulting in an abundance of food, whales could gorge themselves and grow to massive sizes. It was also more advantageous when travelling vast distances to find food, to be long and streamlined. 

These leviathans lived at a time when our oceans were in perfect balance, and they played a critical role in maintaining that balance. Like today, their flocculent plumes fertilised the oceans, meaning there were more phytoplankton and zooplankton, which means more food for marine life and more oxygen for all life on earth. Their songs would have travelled half the globe under the sea communicating with each other without interference from today man-made noise pollution. 

These highly intelligent, socially-complex sentient beings would have seen our planet at a time where life was truly abundant, rich and healthy.   One where naturalists today can only dream about. Vast migrations of animals stretching as far as the eye could see and a caravan of chorus below the waves. Regardless of where on planet earth, Mother Nature would have been centre stage every day as the greatest and most spectacular show on earth.

However, as humanity hit the sea and the whalers began their assault and annihilation of the whales, with such cruelty and barbarity, our mammalian cousins' days were numbered. Explosive harpoons, driven by an insane and unquenchable lust for greed and profit, were unleashed. Leading to an estimated three million whales being horrifically killed in the 20th century. 

Even back in the 1960’s there was no whale watching or 'save the whales' movement. It wasn’t until 1967 when biologist Dr Roger Payne was introduced to the sounds from the oceans that Frank Watlington recorded. The sounds that he found both spectacular and beautiful were the sound of whales. In 1970 Roger then went onto release an album called 'Songs of the Humpback Whale', that became the most successful natural history recording ever made. These keystone events catch the imagination of the world and help inspire the 'save the whales' campaign, but also the modern-day conservation movement.

Sea Shepherd's Founder Captain Paul Watson in 1978.

In 1975 a young Paul Watson, 90 kilometres off the coast of northern California put himself and his life between Soviet whalers and a pod of sperm whales. It was then that Paul looked into the eye of a 40-tonne dying sperm whale and saw intelligence, that they are self-aware, but also sensed pity from the whale that the human species could do such a thing. The Soviets were killing sperm whales to get the lubricating spermaceti oil from inside their heads. When Paul realised that the Soviets were hunting down these majestic, highly intelligent and socially complex beings to get oil to be used in building ballistic missiles for the mass extermination of life, he realised that humanity has truly gone mad and he decided to fight for the whales from then on. These are the clients that he represents.

In 1977, Paul founded Sea Shepherd. It was a time when conservation was not as cool and acceptable as it is today, but Paul was a real pioneer and leader for the conservation movement. Paul was passionate about seeing a no-nonsense direct action, lean and effective approach for delivering tangible results for the oceans. All those that have joined Sea Shepherd since then have come with a love of the natural world and a deep understanding of the oceans’ ecological importance. As Paul says, “if the oceans die, we die”. 

Come forward 30 years and Sea Shepherd is established in Australia and it’s this no-nonsense, 'roll up the sleeves and get the job done' approach that suits the Australian psyche. This helps Sea Shepherd and the greater whale-loving people of Australia do all they can to provision and support the whales’ navy; be that defending their Antarctic feeding grounds from the threats of the harpoons of the illegal Japanese whale poachers, or the threats of a massive gas hub through their Kimberley birthing grounds or a big oil spill threat and seismic blasts in the Great Australian Bight. 

I have had the privilege of sailing with Sea Shepherd to Antarctica in defence of the whales a number of times, and remember on one occasion a lady at the departure dock with tears running down her face saying 'thank you'. She was a complete stranger to me, but the love she had for the whales and appreciation for what we were about to do, sailed with us on that journey. It’s this resolve and support, from the people of Australia, and around the globe that has allowed for huge victories for the whales; off the Kimberley, the Bight and in Antarctica. 

It is these victories that we share proudly together, that lead to tangible outcomes like the humpback population growing from as low as 500 on the east coast and 100 on the east coast after whaling, to now over 30,000 and 20,000 respectively as one of the great conservation success stories of our time.

A humpback whale breaching. Each year, Australia's coastlines come alive with humpback whales migrating to warmer waters.

So, in the coming months, I will join the millions of Australians around this great country of ours, as we stand upon our vast coastline looking out, and welcoming the whales as they make their mass migration from their summer Antarctic feeding grounds to their winter nursing and resting grounds. I will take a breath and know that most of the air we breathe comes from the oceans, the oceans that whales play a critical role in keeping balanced. I hope to perhaps get a glimpse of what our oceans may have been like millions of years ago before us. I’ll reflect on all the first Australians, like Mirning Elder Bunna Lawrie who, with his ancestors going back 100,000 plus years, would have welcomed southern right whales in numbers that would dwarf today’s population.

I will acknowledge and appreciate the passionate, courageous and fierce pioneers for the ‘save the whale’ movement, like Dr Roger Payne and of course Sea Shepherd Founder Captain Paul Watson and all the Sea Shepherd volunteers and crews and supporters that have given so much, so that other sentient beings be spared the grenade tipped harpoons of the whale poachers. 

I will also take note of the privileged experiences I have with these prehistoric and highly intelligent minds in the water, singing their songs and stories that date back millions of years. Whether that be seeing minke whales lunge while feeding off an ancient world of ice in Antarctica, or a mother humpback nursing her calf off the warm waters off the Kimberley coast, or a mother and calf blue whale off Dunsborough in Western Australia. These priceless experiences I will take with me to the grave, and  I would not trade for all the money in the world. The adrenalin flooding through my veins in seeing, only metres from me, a 40-tonne bull humpback launching out of the water with such power and might that connect us all with a slap in the face to the natural world. Because humanity rallied, these experiences our children can also absorb into their consciousness with the same awe and wonder as we have.

A humpback whale breaching in the waters of the Kimberley, WA.

However, it’s hard for my mind to sit idle, for we still have much work to be done to protect whales. Even off Australia’s coasts they still face grave risks, be that from the impacts of a ship strike, noise pollution via seismic cannon blasts or the gauntlet of shark nets they run into as they come up the east coast of Australia. 

We took the whales to the brink of extinction in the name of greed and profit, money over nature, and with these shark nets off the Queensland coasts as the whales come through have we learnt that much? A net that is only 150 metres long, that doesn’t go from the top to the bottom, that is merely a false sense of security as proven by science and senate enquiries, all in the name of a placebo effect for the supposed tourism dollar. 

As the whales return in the coming months, we will see more entanglements. We will see a mother with her heart breaking as she watches her inquisitive and playful baby trying desperately to free itself from the clutches of Queensland’s indiscriminately killing shark nets. As her entangled baby struggles to breathe fighting against a man-made curtain of death, we will also see men and women risking their lives to de-entangle her baby. A pointless and barbaric situation and a supposed solution that was created by humans back in the 1930s, the days when Australia was a whaling nation.

We change man-made laws to allow the killing of protected marine life, yet each day we as a species are breaking the most sacred laws of nature, laws that govern our planet’s ability to support life, for all life. Each whale lost is a further weakening of humanity's life support system, as whales play a vital role in the health of our oceans, be that for phytoplankton production that gives us most of the air we breathe or fighting climate change. 

So in reality, although Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd’s clients are whales, ultimately what we have done and continue to do is for the health of our oceans and the future for life on earth as we know it. So, in a nutshell, putting the whales first is putting humanity first.

Now is a time to celebrate the arrival of the whales and the work that has been done by so many over many decades. We are all connected to the whales and our oceans with each breath that we draw, and we must continue in being custodians for nature, the greatest show on earth.

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